Western Mysticism – A very brief introduction

Posted by cathygrise - April 30, 2015

Two branches of western medieval christian Mysticism

Apophatic or negative theology– “A way of approaching God by denying that any of our concepts can be properly affirmed of Him. It is contrasted with affirmative and symbolic theology. The soul rejects all ideas and images of God and enters the ‘darkness that is beyond understanding’, where it is ‘wholly united with the Ineffable’ (Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite).” The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (2 rev. ed.), Edited by E. A. Livingstone (Oxford Reference Online)

Cataphatic or positive theology – God can be described and understood through human language and symbols. This affirmative theology acknowledges that God is ineffable while recognizing that most Christians approach God most readily through metaphors of the human/natural world.

Studying Mysticism

The twentieth-century study of mysticism began with a focus on male mystics who made theological advances in their writings. Modernist scholars were especially interested in the language of interior contemplation and in expressions of apophatic mysticism, the strand of mystical theology that explored God’s ineffability – The Cloud of Unknowing. Since the 1970s and 80s, scholars have also explored the different attitudes toward theology and religious practice illustrated by women mystics, and although they have been interested in their mystical practices they have also explored other issues such as their appropriation of religious authority, and their complex attitudes to the body. As a result of their work we often call them “visionaries” instead of “mystics” to allow for this broader study. (They were often just called holy women in the Middle Ages).

In  the late Middle Ages in Europe, female visionaries often employed cataphatic (or positive) theology in their vernacular visions and writings. They made Church beliefs accessible to everyone by using “homely” images and often spoke simply, or provided commentary on their visions to make them understandable to a the broader population. These women often identified with Jesus’ mother Mary and with the human figure of Jesus, since the humanity of these figures allowed them to find a common ground with the divine. These figures became, like those of Mary and Jesus, intermediaries themselves, mediating between human understanding and Church teachings, between the body and the soul, and between the human and divine worlds/spheres.

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